Mark and Nadine's Arctic Expedition travel blog

Mt Drum, in Wrangell-St. Elias NP

Mt Blackburn

Fish wheels and salmon fishermen on the Copper River

Former rail bridge, now part of the McCarthy Road

On the McCarthy Road

Today we made the worst decision of our trip (so far). Our intention was to drive south to the town of Valdez. But when we stopped at the Visitor’s Center in Glennallen, we met an off-duty National Parks ranger named Brianna, who works in the Wrangell-St. Elias NP, the nation’s largest. We asked her about ways to experience the park, which (though huge) has very limited points of access. She encouraged us to drive down the 60-mile gravel road to McCarthy and Kennicott, former copper-mining towns on the western side of the park.

We had read descriptions of the McCarthy Road, which is built mostly on the abandoned railbed of the line that used to bring ore out of the Kennicott mines. Based on these accounts, we had decided against taking the road, feeling that we had put Rosie through enough already. But Brianna and the Visitor’s Center attendant both assured us that “If you can drive the Dempster Highway and the Haul Road, you won’t have any problem with the McCarthy Road.” While we didn’t, in fact, have problems on the road, it turned out to be a miserable drive to a destination that certainly wasn’t worth the trip.

Approaching the turnoff for the McCarthy Road, we saw amazing views of some of the highest mountains in North America, such as Mt. Blackburn (16,400 ft.) and Mt. Sanford (16,300 ft.), 12th and 13th on the list. But once we were on the infamous McCarthy Road, we found ourselves in the foothills of these mountains, too close to these lower mountains to see the more dramatic peaks behind them.

The McCarthy Road itself is interesting, in places, such as when it crosses the Kuskulana River on an old railroad bridge (one long, narrow, single lane) and passes other trestles left over from mining days. But it was in the worst condition of any road we’ve traveled, on this or any other trip, and we’ve traveled some doozies! The road surface had terrible wash-boarding, and in places old railroad ties had worked their way up to the surface. We passed two accidents on the road - one going in and one going out. One young couple had driven their SUV and trailer off the road into a ditch, and another young woman (who had just passed us, going much too fast for conditions), apparently side-swiped the shuttle van that brings in passengers from Glennallen.

The road ends at the outskirts of the town of McCarthy, abandoned after the Kennicott mines closed in the 1930s. We walked across the footbridge to take a look at the town. It now consists solely of tourist services (a hotel, a bar, a store, some guide services, etc.), but it’s a dusty, dirty, unappealing place.

The campground we stayed in, about half a mile before the footbridge, was by far the worst of our trip. It was little more than a gravel pit, covered with some scrubby overgrowth, into which a few campsites had been casually bulldozed. It sat behind a bedraggled barbeque stand, which served as the “office.” The park boasted of its hot showers (for an additional $7.00 charge), but the sole shower stall and the camp’s one pit toilet were housed under the same roof, in a tiny shack. The toilet side of the shack had a half-screened door, so anyone approaching it could see whomever was inside, if they wanted to. The shower side of the shack had no exterior door at all - just a shower curtain, blowing in the wind. The shower itself relied on a noisy pump, powered by a car battery, to draw heated water from a large exterior tank. The whole structure was filthy.

At about 8:00 P.M., the folks at the barbeque stand set up an amplifier and speakers and started playing rock and country tunes, in an attempt to attract a holiday-weekend crowd (as far as we could see, it didn’t work). But although our campsite was near the barbeque stand, the music didn’t bother us. That’s because the barbeque stand drew its power from a noisy gas generator, which was located right behind our campsite; the generator effectively drowned out any other noises in the campground. We don’t know when the music ended, but the generator was finally shut off (or ran out of gas) around 1:30 A.M.

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